By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
Before you eat a hot beef sandwich in Chicago, you need to talk to Chris Pacelli, Jr., who owns Al’s #1 Italian Beef with his brothers Chuck and Terry. He’ll tell you how to do it right.
“Assume the stance,” he commands with a gruff Chicago honk, positioning himself at a chest-high ledge on which his customers dine. “Put your feet apart and slide ’em back like you’re going to be frisked. Put your two elbows on the counter and put both your hands around the sandwich, thumbs underneath.” When he stands in this position with his mitts enveloping a Big Al’s beef sandwich—a shaft of fresh-baked bread loaded with warm sliced meat, garnished with sweet roasted peppers and hot giardiniera relish, and soaked with natural gravy—he looks almost like a giddy strangler with his fingers wrapped around a neck. “Now, bring it to your face.” He pauses a delicious moment when the sandwich is close enough for him to smell its warm, beefy bouquet. His elbows never leave the counter as he opens wide to yank off a juicy chaw and then pulls away what’s left to a nice viewing distance, relishing the sight of it and the savor in his mouth. “See how all the juice drips on the counter, not on your shoes or shirt? That’s because of the stance!”
In Chicago, where everybody knows this particular type of roast beef sandwich as “Italian beef,” the stance is as much a part of culinary culture as deep-dish pan pizza and Frango Mints. Thin-sliced beef sopped in gravy and stuffed into the absorbent maw of a fresh loaf from Gonnella Baking Company is the city’s premier street food.
Beloved as it is throughout Chicago-land, Italian beef is unknown in other parts of the country. The West’s French dip is vaguely similar, as are Buffalo’s beef on weck (weck is short for Kummel weck, meaning caraway seeds, with which the roll is infused) and the beef debris po’ boy at Mother’s, in New Orleans. What makes Chicago’s sandwich unique? Its garlicky natural gravy, the peppery relish that adorns it, and the brash attitude with which it is customarily served and eaten. Like the South Philly cheesesteak—another distant cousin—Italian beef is a twentieth-century fast-food passion with an Old World pedigree.
It was on Chicago’s near West Side just beyond the downtown Loop that Italian beef as we know it first made a name for itself. Although much of the ethnic enclave known as Little Italy gave way to postwar highways, housing projects, and the Circle Campus of the University of Illinois, Taylor Street still reverberates with ethnic urban character that renewal and gentrification cannot extinguish. Al’s is at the heart of it.
As the Pacelli brothers tell the tale, it was their uncle Albert Ferreri who first conceived the mighty sandwich during the Great Depression. “My uncle Al was a dabbler,” Chris remembers. “Forever trying something new. He and my grandfather Anthony used to drive a coach along the streets and sell his sandwiches in the hospitals. All the doctors knew him. So one day he decides to shave his beef—as thin as you could cut it with a knife—and serve it with a little gravy to soften the bread, and everybody wanted some. In 1938 my uncle and my father opened a beef stand to sell it on the sidewalk. They sold sliced beef in its juices in sandwiches and they cooked sausages over charcoal. There were no tables and no places to sit down. People ate all along the street. In those times, in this neighborhood, every day was a food festival.”
When Al Ferreri’s friends and associates saw how well his enterprise was doing, they opened their own beef eateries in and around Little Italy, and, during the years after World War II, Italian beef stands became part of the Chicago landscape. Not all places cooked their own. For the last half-century, a majority of Italian beef restaurants have procured their meat and gravy from the estimable Scala Packing Company of North Orleans Street. (Scala beef is excellent, but not every stand that serves it has the expertise to steep it properly and to construct a first-rate sandwich.)
Beef was always neighborhood food in Chicago—scarce in the fancier restaurants of the all-business Loop, but abundant in the wards where people lived. Many of the old-time places began as open-air establishments that served as ad hoc community centers; and nearly all appended their beef sandwich menu with spicy sausage (hereabouts pronounced “saasige”) cooked over charcoal that sent inviting smells curling up to third-floor windows of adjacent apartment buildings. Al’s moved to its current location in 1961 and, in recent years, added glass walls and doors to become an actual indoor eatery, complete with modern stainless-steel counters around the perimeter but, of course, no tables or chairs.
On a pleasant day, a majority of Al’s customers prefer to eat alfresco, on the sidewalk or in the parking lot, leaning on their cars. Taylor Street is still in a mostly Italian neighborhood (lined with good sit-down restaurants, fragrant sausage shops, and Old World bakeries), but Al’s reputation attracts Chicagoans from all parts of town. One mild afternoon in April, we share the parking-lot dining facilities with clusters of men in T-shirts eating off the hoods of their trucks; city cops on lunch break with sandwiches and french fries strewn across the roof of their cruiser; a Polish-speaking girl celebrating her sweet sixteen with family and friends; a nonagenarian in suit and tie being pushed in a wheelchair by his wife; a couple wearing more gold jewelry than Mr. T and Nefertiti combined; denim-clad neighborhood teens; raucous hoards of Bulls devotees in full fan attire; and a coterie of young executives with their neckties thrown over their shoulders to avoid beef-juice leakage.
Inside the little cement-floored shed that is Al’s, every available eating surface is elbow-to-elbow with beef aficionados, their hands glistening with juice, their eyes riveted on their sandwiches. The far end of the order counter, where the scenery is a vista of sausages sputtering over charcoal, has room for about ten standup eaters. Two sides of the rectangular space offer gleaming counters and picture windows with views of the parking lot and the sidewalk. The little bit of wall space available for decoration features a picture of Jimmy Durante standing with his arm around Al Ferreri and inscribed by The Schnozzola, “To Al’s and Baba (Al’s nickname): Ink-a-dink-a-doo. What a beef sandwich!” Also, there is a picture of prize fighter Leon Spinks grinning a gap-toothed grin and a glamour shot donated by a local beauty queen.
The din inside is deafening: customers calling out orders and the staff behind the counter calling back at them. The dialogue is eloquent short-order shorthand.
“Big beef, double-dipped!” (That refers to an extra-large sandwich of gravy-sopped beef that, once assembled, is reimmersed for approximately one second in a pan of natural gravy so that the bread is soaked through.)
“Beef with hot” is a request for the relish known as giardiniera, an eye-opening garden mélange of finely chopped celery, capers, and spices that is this roast beef’s perfect complement. The Pacelli brothers make their giardiniera in thirty-gallon batches and let it ferment for three to four days before it’s ready.
The request “Dry and sweet!” instructs the sandwich-maker to pluck a heap of beef from its pan with the serving tongs and let excess juice drip away before inserting it into the bread. “Sweet” is the popular alternative to giardiniera: big, tender shreds of roasted green bell pepper. Some customers order double hot or double sweet; some get their sandwich sweet and hot.
“Combo!” or “Half and half!” is a call for a sandwich that contains not only beef but also a plump, five-inch length of Italian sausage retrieved from the haze that hovers over the coals behind the order counter. “Our charcoal is grand-fathered in,” Chris Pacelli boasts, explaining that most new Italian beef stands are required to cook their sausage on a gas grill. Coals give Al’s taut-skinned links of peppery, coarse-ground pork a sharp, smoky flavor. Succulent and well-spiced, the sausage is itself a major lure for many customers who sidestep beef altogether and order double-sausage sandwiches, hot or sweet, dipped or dry.
The stealth element of a beef sandwich, the one essential ingredient that brings everything together but generally goes unnoticed, is the bread. Chicago’s Gonnella Baking Company, the motto of which is “We Bake to Differ,” supplies most of the city’s beef stands, including Al’s, with long, brawny loaves ideally suited for the critical job of absorbing massive amounts of meat juice while remaining intact and appealingly bready. Each loaf is rugged-crusted but not brittle; the earthy interior softens as the gravy infuses it but doesn’t lose its character.
At Al’s, the french fries are essential. Thin-cut and crunchy with tender insides and a vigorously salted crust, served hot from the fry kettle, these handsome buff-colored twigs are presented just like the sandwich in a wax-paper wrapper that you peel back to form a kind of tablecloth to eat from. Afterward, during the summer months, satisfied eaters can stroll across the street to Mario’s, a charming Italian-ice stand, for a sweet snowball or a refreshing post-prandial lemonade.
At this point, we are obliged to caution that not all Italian beef sandwiches will inspire the all-is-well-with-the-world satisfaction that Al’s do. To slice a roast so thin and to then keep the slices of beef in a pan of gravy is an invitation to disaster if the beef isn’t lean and extraordinarily supple and if the gravy is anything but pure. Even very good beef can be undermined by second-rate bread or bread that is stale. Overcooked sweet peppers can sometimes be bitter; old ones turn flabby; and few giardiniere are as intriguing as Al’s ebullient mélange.
“Warning!” wrote Rich Bdwen and Dick Fay in their valuable guide to cheap eats, Hot Dog Chicago. “If good Italian beef is heavenly, bad beef is hellish. It is as bad as any sandwich can get.” Stick with Al’s, or Mr. Beef on Orleans, or Buona Beef in Berwyn and Oak Park, or Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park, and you’ve got your ticket to Italian beef heaven.
The obvious reason for Al’s legendary status is the flavor of the beef, and the reason the beef is so good is that the Pacelli brothers are themselves passionate eaters. When you hear Chris rhapsodize about the joy of a double-dipped sandwich, you are hearing a devotee who has known and studied it since he was a boy.
To create their exquisite beef, the Pacellis put three 12-pound sirloin butts in the oven at a time, layering them in a pot full of seasonings, including several whole bulbs of garlic that Chris crushes between his palms. When the meat has cooked at least three and a half hours, it is retrieved from the spicy cooking juices, which are then poured through a superfine strainer, yielding an unclouded mahogany broth. The broth is diluted and simmered atop the stove, gradually becoming the precious dipping juice in which the beef is immersed (and some whole sandwiches are plunged) just before serving. After the slabs of beef have cooled and settled overnight, all their fat is cut away and they are sliced extremely thin. Without the juice added back, these slices are dry, albeit high-flavored and butter-tender. At this point in the preparation, a condition of supreme purity has been attained. On the cutting board is a pile of impeccable lean beef and on the stove is a pot of brothy beef essence. The trick now is to combine the two. Years of practice have taught the Pacellis precisely when to dunk the beef in the pan of hot juices.
Al’s sells beef by the pound, and there are people who actually buy it to take home and serve on a plate with a knife and fork, like it was meat cut from an ordinary roast. But such amenities are anathema to most Chicagoans, for whom Italian beef means just one thing: a paper-wrapped sandwich at a curbside stand where they can assume the stance and savor the perfect harmony of meat and gravy, bakery-fresh bread, and the company of their fellow connoisseurs.